Swordfish

Xiphias gladius

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Longline
Capture area — Pacific, South West (FAO 81) and Central (FAO 71,77)
Stock area — South West Pacific
Stock detail — All Areas
Picture of Swordfish

Sustainability rating three info

Sustainability overview

Updated: December 2019 

Swordfish in the South West Pacific Ocean (SWPO) are assessed and managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). The last stock assessment was carried out in 2017 using data up to 2015. It is highly likely that the stock is not in an overfished condition (Spawning Biomass, SB2012-2015 at 1.58SBMSY) and not experiencing overfishing, (Fishing mortality, F, at 0.86 FMSY). There is no Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set for this stock yet most participating countries have set national TACs for their components. Following scientific advice, for the area south of 20 degrees South, countries must limit the number of vessels fishing for swordfish to 2000-2005 levels, limit catches to 2000-2006 levels. They must not shift their fishing effort for swordfish to the area north of 20 degrees south as a result of this measure, although this is not well enforced. Total catches have been relatively stable in recent years, but regional increases have been significant, especially in the WCPFC area north of 20 degrees south.

Most the catch is taken in pelagic longline fisheries which can be associated with significant bycatch of other billfish and vulnerable species such as sharks, turtles, birds. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources advises that, together with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the greatest threat to Southern Ocean seabirds is mortality in longline fisheries in waters adjacent to its Convention Area. Of critical concern is Antipodean wandering albatross, which is expanding foraging range into tuna fishery areas and has experienced a high and sustained rate of decline. Whilst there are some mitigation measures in place to reduce the impact, monitoring and reporting of interactions is insufficient to evaluate the effectiveness of these measures. There is 5% observer coverage on large longliners, but 20% is recommended.

Buyers need to ensure that any swordfish being sourced from south of 30 degrees south is only coming from fleets that are either MSC certified or in a credible Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) or are using best practice seabird bycatch mitigation measures and being well monitored. Large buyers should consider supporting improvements needed to achieve this.

Biology

Swordfish is the only member of the family Xiphiidae. It is a highly migratory species, moving towards temperate or cold waters in summer to feed and returning to warmer waters to spawn. They are apex predators that feed opportunistically. Squids and fishes are major prey items. In the Atlantic, spawning takes place in spring in the southern Sargasso Sea. In the Pacific, spawning occurs during spring and summer, and in the Mediterranean between June-August. Usually solitary, it forms large schools during spawning. A fast growing fish, northern hemisphere swordfish begin to mature at two years of age, when they are about 150 to 170 cm in length, and by age four all are mature. In the South-West Pacific Ocean however, age at maturity is much later at about 10years for females (1-2yr for males).They can attain a maximum size of 4.5m and a weight of 650kg. Swordfish tolerate temperatures of about 5 to 27C, but their optimum range is about 18 to 22C, and larvae have been found only at temperatures exceeding 24C.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0 info

Stock Area

South West Pacific

Stock information

Swordfish in the South West Pacific Ocean (SWPO) are assessed and managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Historically, the majority of swordfish catches were bycatch from tuna-target fisheries (SWPO swordfish catches were around 2,500 t in the 1970s). SWPO swordfish biomass declined steeply from 1997 to 2010 and then stabilised, likely owing to increases in fishing effort during that period. Catches increased from to 5,000 in the 90s to 10,000 t in the early 2000s as targeted fisheries developed. The introduction of the Spanish longline fleet in 2004 significantly increased catches to around 15,000 t, and then to more than 20,000 t over the period 2011-2015. Total catches have been relatively stable in recent years, but regional increases have been significant, especially in the WCPFC area north of 20 degrees south. The provisional 2017 catch estimate (21,966t) declined from the record 2015 catch (23,889t), mainly due to a reduction in distant-water Asian fleet catches.

A new stock assessment was carried out in 2017 using data up to 2015 and is more certain than the 2013 assessment. Given that WCPFC has yet to formally agree a limit reference point for SWP swordfish, there are two methods for reporting stock status. It is highly likely that the stock is not in an overfished condition (0% probability), with the latest Spawning Biomass (SB) at more than 20% of unfished levels and the ratio of recent SB (2012-2015) to SBMSY at 1.58. It appears that the stock is not experiencing overfishing (32% probability of overfishing), with fishing mortality, F, at 0.86 FMSY.

Management

Criterion score: 0.5 info

As with tuna, individual swordfish stocks range across and are accessed by numerous coastal states, making harmonised and effective management of these individual stocks very difficult. As a result, intergovernmental Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) have been established. There are five main tuna RFMOs worldwide and it is their responsibility to carry out data collection, scientific monitoring and management of these fisheries, including swordfish. Whilst the RFMOs, in this case the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), are responsible for the development of management and conservation measures, the degree to which they are implemented, monitored and enforced still varies significantly between coastal states so it is important to buy tuna and swordfish that has been caught in fisheries that are well regulated by their flag state.

The dominant countries reporting swordfish catches in the region are Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China and Spain.

WCPFC is looking to establish harvest strategies for key fisheries and stocks but has not yet completed this work. South of 20 degrees South, countries are required to limit catches and the number of vessels fishing for swordfish to 2000-2005 levels. Countries should not shift fishing effort to the area north of 20 degrees South, but there are no catch or effort restrictions for this area, which is responsible for half the total catches and contributes substantially to fishing mortality and spawning biomass depletion levels. Furthermore, if countries were to fish their full allowance south of 20 degrees S, the risk of overfishing would substantially increase (at current catch levels, the probability is 32%). The movement and aggregation behaviours of swordfish make it particularly vulnerable to local depletion. There may also be connectivity between the south western population and south eastern population. The south eastern population has no management and no stock assessment since 2011. There is no overall Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set. A proposal to address these issues is to be considered in 2020. The WCPFC scientific committee have recommended that due to uncertainty in the assessment, there should be no increase in fishing mortality over current (2007 to 2010) levels.

Management measures that apply to directed tuna fisheries are expected to also benefit swordfish stocks.
To help address IUU, the WCPFC maintains an IUU Vessel List; and all transhipments at sea are to be documented and 100% observed as part of the regional observer programme.
The WCPFC requires 5% observer coverage for longline vessels over 20m.
In 2017, WCPFC introduced a Compliance Monitoring Scheme to assess and improve compliance with obligations, and penalise non-compliance.

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.75 info

In the South-West Pacific Ocean, swordfish are mostly caught in mixed species pelagic longline fisheries off the coast of Australia and New Zealand and in the central South Pacific near the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, with smaller quantities taken in artisanal gill and fixed net fisheries. Pelagic longlining in the WCPO is associated with the incidental capture and mortality of vulnerable species including sharks, turtles, sea birds and other billfish.

There is concern that some seabird species, notably albatrosses and petrels, are threatened with global extinction. Of critical concern is Antipodean wandering albatross, which is expanding foraging range into tuna fishery areas and has experienced a high and sustained rate of decline - it is now in New Zealand’s “Nationally Critical” conservation status category. High bycatch of seabirds, especially albatross, continue to be reported by some countries fishing south of 30 degrees South. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources advises that, together with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the greatest threat to Southern Ocean seabirds is mortality in longline fisheries in waters adjacent to its Convention Area. Countries are expected to implement the International Plan of Action for Reducing Incidental Catches of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries (IPOA-Seabirds) and report back on this. South of 30 degrees South and north of 23 degrees North, longliners must use at least 2 mitigation measures. In the area between, longliners need only use 1. The simultaneous use of 3 measures (weighted branch lines, bird scaring lines and night setting) remains the best practice approach. Further research is being done on hook shielding devices, and countries are encouraged to develop and refine measures to mitigate seabird bycatch, including safe release of seabirds captured alive. Scientific advice is to review observer coverage rates (used to estimate total seabird interactions), which is not currently being done.

The five marine turtle species in the WCPFC Convention Area are threatened or critically endangered, and WCPFC does not hold sufficient information to quantify the severity of the threat posed by longline fisheries to sea turtle populations. Measures to mitigate turtle bycatch, from 2008, are: to safely recover and release captured turtles, for purse seiners to avoid encircling them, for longliners to carry cutters and dehookers for releasing them, and for shallow-set swordfish longliners to use circle hooks and whole finfish bait (some exemptions to the latter measure apply, e.g. if there is 10% observer coverage). Under this measure, less than 1% of Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) longline effort is subject to mitigation, even though approximately 20% of the WCPO longline effort consists of shallow sets. To improve current management measures, research into turtle bycatch mitigation is ongoing. Research includes, but is not limited to, the wider use in longline fisheries of large circle hooks and/or whole finfish for bait. Improvements in data collection on interactions with sea turtles are needed. Although interaction rates are higher in shallow-set longlines, mitigation for deep-set longlines would deliver greater reductions in total interactions because effort in deep-set longline fisheries is 4 times that of shallow sets. Similarly, introducing mitigation to deep-set longlines would deliver greater reductions in at-vessel mortality compared to shallow-sets, because sea turtles have a higher probability of asphyxiation in deep sets.

In 2016, catches of silky sharks in the longline fishery were around three times higher than in the purse seine fishery. Shark measures include: full utilisation of permissible sharks and retention of no more than 5% of fins to total shark weight, a prohibition to land silky and oceanic whitetip sharks, and a prohibition on the use of shark lines. The effectiveness of these measures are difficult to evaluate owing to lack of data. As of 2014, shark management plans are required where sharks are being targeted, although to date only 2 countries have developed them. There are measures to improve recording of manta and mobula rays discarded and released, and to treat these species as key shark species for assessment and research. In 2017 the scientific committee recommended guidelines for safe release of manta and mobulid rays, which were adopted by the WCPFC. The commission is also looking to develop guidelines for other rays and sharks, especially silky shark and oceanic whitetips, as well as develop stronger and more comprehensive management measures for sharks, but there is no stated deadline for this. It is recommended that target and limit reference points are established for pelagic sharks.

In general, the effectiveness of the above measures has not been evaluated. Monitoring is deficient and the reporting of interactions with vulnerable species is poor. The scientific committee has recommended a continuation of the work on purse seine bycatch estimates and extension of this work to producing estimates of bycatch in the longline fisheries for 2018, acknowledging the issues related to the 5% observer coverage in these fisheries.

Alternatives

Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.

Anchovy, anchovies
Arctic char
Herring or sild
Mackerel
Salmon, Atlantic (Farmed)
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
Swordfish
Trout, Rainbow
Tuna, albacore
Tuna, skipjack
Tuna, yellowfin

References

ACAP, 2019. ACAP Review and Best Practice Advice for Reducing the Impact of Pelagic Longline Fisheries on Seabirds, Reviewed at the Eleventh Meeting of the Advisory Committee of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, 13 - 17 May 2019, Florianopolis, Brazil. Available at https://www.acap.aq/en/bycatch-mitigation/mitigation-advice/3498-acap-2019-review-and-best-practice-advice-for-reducing-the-impact-of-pelagic-longline-fisheries-on-seabirds/file [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

Brouwer, S., Pilling, G., Williams, P., WCPFC Secretariat , 2017. Trends in the South Pacific albacore longline and troll fisheries, Document WCPFC-SC13-2017/SA-WP-08 for the Thirteenth Regular Session of the Scientific Committee of the Commission for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, 9 - 17 August 2017, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. 70 pp. Available at https://www.wcpfc.int/meetings/sc13 [Accessed on 27.11.2017].

Dias, M. P., Martin. R., Pearmain, E., J., Burfield, I. J., Small, C., Phillips, R. A., Yates, O., Lascelles, B., Garcia Borboroglu, P. and Croxall, J. P., 2019. Threats to seabirds: A global assessment. Biol. Cons. 237, pp 525-537. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.06.033 [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

ISC, 2019. Report of the Nineteenth Meeting of the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, 11-15 July 2019, Taipei City, Taiwan. Available at http://isc.fra.go.jp/pdf/ISC19/ISC19_PLENARY_Report_FINAL.pdf [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

MSC, 2018. Marine Stewardship Council: Walker Seafood Australian albacore, yellowfin tuna, and swordfish longline. Available at https://fisheries.msc.org/en/fisheries/walker-seafood-australian-albacore-yellowfin-tuna-and-swordfish-longline [Accessed on 05.12.2019].

Takeuchi, Y., Pilling, G., Hampton, J., 2017. Stock assessment of swordfish (Xiphias gladius) in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, Document WCPFC-SC13-2017/SA-WP-13 for the Thirteenth Regular Session of the Scientific Committee of the Commission for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, 9 - 17 August 2017, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. 70 pp. Available at https://www.wcpfc.int/meetings/sc13 [Accessed on 27.11.2017].

WCPFC, 2019. Draft Summary Report of the Fifteenth Regular Session of the Northern Committee of the Commission for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, 3 - 6 September 2019, Oregon, USA. Available at https://www.wcpfc.int/system/files/0_NC15%20Summary%20Report%20-%20Distributed%20on%2011Sep2019%20%28Posted%20on%2001Nov2019%29.docx [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

WCPFC, 2019. Strengthening the management of south pacific broadbill swordfish (Xiphias Gladius). Document WCPFC16-2019-DP19 submitted by Australia to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission Sixteenth Regular Session, 5 - 11 December 2019, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Available at https://www.wcpfc.int/node/44671 [Accessed on 05.12.2019].

WCPFC, 2019. Conservation and Management Measures of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Available at https://www.wcpfc.int/conservation-and-management-measures [Accessed on 05.12.2019].